Obesity Intervention & Epidemiology Research

Why Study Obesity?

Obesity Prevention Center (OPC)
The University of Minnesota Obesity Prevention Center (OPC) provides leadership and coordination at the local, national, and international level for multidisciplinary research and education that focuses on understanding and responding to the worldwide public health crisis of epidemic excessive weight gain and obesity.

The faculty and programs coordinated through OPC seek to be catalysts for interdisciplinary collaboration across the University of Minnesota, between the University and the local community, and between individuals and organizations nationally and internationally that wish to address this important public health issue.

The specific goals of the Center are to pursue scientific discovery through collaborative research within and outside the University, to disseminate findings through publications, training/teaching and community outreach, and to work with community partners in industry, health care delivery, public health and the community to reduce and reverse upward trends in population body weight.

Questions? Contact OPC Director:
Dr. Simone French

Obesity prevalence has increased during the past 30 years. In 2012, 35% of US adults and 17% of children and adolescents ages 2-19 yrs, and 8% of infants and toddlers aged birth to 2 yrs were obese. Children and adolescents who are obese are very likely to be obese as adults. No effective treatments for obesity have been identified.

The increases in obesity prevalence are easy to document. However, changes in the two behaviors that affect obesity, dietary intake and physical activity, have been challenging. Even more challenging has been the identification of the changes in the food and built environment that have led to excess energy intake, physical inactivity and obesity.

Gaining a better understanding of the environmental variables that influence behaviors related to obesity is important to develop interventions and policies to help reverse the epidemic of obesity and its companion, Type 2 diabetes. Multiple levels of influence need to be examined, spanning from federal, state and local policies about the food and built environment, transportation policies, neighborhood social factors, including poverty, income and racial and ethnic disparities, the family home environment and parenting practices, leisure time choices and behavioral and genetic variables that might contribute to obesity risk.


The Division of Epidemiology has a core of faculty who are internationally recognized for their research on the behavioral and environmental factors associated with obesity, and on interventions designed to prevent obesity in adult, child, and adolescent populations.

Faculty expertise includes nutrition, physical activity, behavioral intervention, community intervention, environmental intervention and health policy.  More generally, the University of Minnesota has a strong obesity research base in nutrition, kinesiology, psychology, clinical medicine, the basic sciences, and other supporting fields.

Faculty research areas include

  • Community-level interventions with children, families and under-represented populations low-income and minority:
  • Environmental interventions;
  • Economic factors that influence food purchasing and diet; food marketing and food retailing;
  • Individual behavioral interventions focused on eating and physical activity behavior change;
  • Mechanisms of eating and physical activity behaviors (behavioral choice determinants; motivation; social influences);
  • Clinical intervention methods for weight loss;
  • Genetic and biological risk factors for obesity;
  • Inter-generational transmission of obesity risk (epigenetics);
  • Food policies (including economic factors, farm policy, federal food programs);
  • Transportation and built environment and policies.

Highlighted Research

Current Intervention Studies:

Linking Primary Care, Communities and Families to Prevent Obesity Among Preschool Children (Net-WORKS)
Co-Principal Investigators: Simone French, Nancy Sherwood
Funding Agencies:  NIH/NHLBI/NICHD
Net-WORKS is a 7-year study that aims to prevent obesity among low-income, preschool children through linking primary care, parent community education, and community-based food and physical activity resources. Five hundred (500) families with preschool-aged children will participate in the randomized study. The study will include a family advocate who will work with each family to make changes in the home environment related to healthy food choices, reducing screen time, and increasing physical activity. The grant is one of four projects funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute through the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Study of Health Outcomes of Weight Loss (Look AHEAD)
Robert W. Jeffery (PI), John Bantle, Bruce Redmon
Funding Agencies: NIH/NIDDK/NHLBI
The Look AHEAD study started as a 16-center clinical trial to evaluate the long-term health effects of weight loss among participants with type 2 diabetes (5,145 total participants). The main goal was to determine if Intensive Lifestyle Intervention (ILI) participants had fewer cardiovascular events than those in a Diabetes Support and Education (DSE) group.  In October 2012, it was determined that there was no difference in cardiovascular events between groups and the trial was transitioned to a longitudinal observational cohort study.

Portion Size Effects on Body Weight
Simone French (PI), Robert Jeffery
Funding Agency:  NIH/NIDDK
The purpose of the study is to examine the effects of portion sizes on changes in body weight, energy intake, and psychobiological and cognitive mediators of energy intake, among a community sample of adults in a free-living setting.

Weight Tracking and Behavioral Weight Loss Outcomes: Establishing the Standard of  Care
Jennifer Linde (PI), Robert Jeffery, Scott Crow, Julian Wolfson
Funding Agency:  NIH/NIDDK
The Tracking study is a randomized study to determine the effects of weight tracking frequency on the weight loss process and outcomes, as well as to elucidate the effects of weight tracking frequency on mental health during weight loss.

Minnesota Obesity Center (MNOC) Epidemiology and Intervention Core
 Allen Levine (PI), Robert Jeffery (Core Director), Jennifer Linde (Associate Core Director)
Funding Agency:  NIH/NIDDK
Funded since 1995, MNOC is a National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases funded center grant designed to facilitate interdisciplinary research on the causes, prevention, and treatment of obesity.  Dr. Robert W. Jeffery is the Director of the Epidemiology and Intervention Core, which provides high quality services for epidemiological and behavioral intervention studies to other Center investigators.

Evaluating Innovative Weight Reduction Strategies for College Students (CHOICES)
Investigators: Melissa Laska (PI), formally Leslie Lytle
Funding Agency: NIH/NHLBI
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute funded a 5-year grant entitled “Evaluating Innovative Weight Reduction Strategies for College Students.” This research will develop and test innovative strategies to help prevent unhealthy weight gain in college students using a social ecological approach. This project is part of a U01 mechanism and includes two phases: a 2 year formative stage and a 24-month randomized controlled trial.

Designing a Food Benefit Program to Optimize Diet Quality for Obesity Prevention (GAPS)
Principal Investigator: Lisa Harnack
Funding Agency:  NIH
This study is evaluating whether prohibiting the purchase of foods high in discretionary calories with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits may improve the nutritional quality of foods purchased and consumed by program participants, especially when paired with an incentive to encourage the purchase of more nutritious foods.

Impact of a Local Staple Food Ordinance on Healthy Food Availability
 Melissa Laska (PI)
Funding agencies:  NIH/NIDDK and CDC
The aim of this study is to evaluate the impact of a local policy change (i.e., the Minneapolis Staple Food Ordinance) that establishes minimum stocking criteria for a wide array of healthy foods as a requirement of food store licensing. Recent calls to action from the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities have identified improving access to healthy foods as a primary strategy for local governments to use in advancing obesity prevention efforts, but policy initiatives in this area have been limited. In this study, the impact of the Minneapolis Staple Food Ordinance will be evaluated by assessing objectively measured changes in: (a) food environments among small, urban food stores, including availability, promotion, advertising, quality, price, and placement of both healthy and unhealthy foods and beverages, and (b) nutritional quality of consumer purchases at small food stores, including assessment of energy density and calories via customer intercept surveys and direct observation of purchases. These changes will be assessed pre- and post-policy implementation in two Minnesota cities: Minneapolis and St. Paul, (our control community). The proposed scope of work in this study is important because its takes advantage of a unique opportunity to evaluate an innovative local policy addressing a recommended action area for obesity prevention that aligns with key recommendations by leading obesity prevention authorities. To our knowledge, the Minneapolis Staple Food Ordinance is the only policy of its kind in the US, and as such it could serve as an important model policy for other local governments if it is successful.

Current Epidemiology Studies:

Project EAT-III: Eating Among Teens and Young Adults
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Melissa Laska Nelson
Funding Agency: NIH/NHLBI
Project EAT-III follows up on EAT-I and EAT-II to improve our understanding of what influences eating, physical activity, and weight-related behaviors in teens and young adults. To address the Project EAT-III objectives, there were two major study components.

  • Follow-up study with young adults: The EAT survey was revised based on an expanded model, integrating an ecological perspective with Social Cognitive Theory. Previous Project EAT participants were contacted by mail and asked to complete the revised survey, a dietary questionnaire.
  • School-based study with teens: A new group of young people are being recruited from middle schools and high schools in Minnesota. This component of the study includes in-school surveys and measurements of student height and weight, as well as measurements of peer, school, and neighborhood environments. Environmental measures are being completed by peers themselves and school personnel. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is being used to learn about the neighborhood environment.

Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study (CARDIA)
 Pamela J. Schreiner, David R. Jacobs, Lyn Steffen
Funding Agency: NIH/NHLBI
ARDIA is a longitudinal observational study designed to examine secular and age-related trends in risk factors associated with coronary heart disease (CHD). The CARDIA cohort was recruited in 1985 to be balanced on gender, ethnicity, age, and educational attainment among 18 to 30 year-olds in four U.S. communities. These participants have now been followed for 20 years to examine inter-relationships of the major risk factors for CHD in young adulthood as well as emerging risk factors. As the cohort enters middle age, coronary artery calcification will be measured to assess the development of subclinical atherosclerosis and its relationship with antecedent risk factor levels. These trends will help us to better understand the risk factor patterns leading to early disease in an age range when prevention is feasible.

Iowa Women’s Health Study (IWHS)
  Aaron R. Folsom, Lisa Harnack, David R. Jacobs, DeAnn Lazovich, Kristin E. Anderson
Funding Agency: National Cancer Institute
Several previous studies have shown that obese women whose body fat is greater in the abdomen than in the hips are at increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. This 25-year study is determining whether body fat distribution is also related to risk of breast and endometrial cancer, and total mortality. A sample of 42,000 postmenopausal Iowa women completed a questionnaire and took measurements of their own bodies. The women are being followed for occurrence of cancer, using the Iowa cancer registry. Studies of diet and chronic disease occurrence also have been undertaken. Linkage to Medicare records is providing new outcome data.

Completed Intervention Research

Completed Epidemiology Studies